Fear unites GOP in final debate

Trump reiterates his ‘Muslim ban’ proposal, while Cruz backs it saying he had a similar plan earlier

As nine Republican presidential aspirants in their fifth and final debate scrabbled for the pole position ahead of primaries, most of them were united in pandering to the fear of Islamism that has gripped the U.S after the recent terror strikes in Paris and California. Candidates sought to mark their distinctiveness by claiming to be more effective than the others in dealing with the threat.

They also took divergent positions on U.S interventions in West Asia, mass surveillance, immigration, Islam, military strategy and dealing with Russia in the debate that focused on national security and foreign policy. Several candidates thought the U.S.’s regime change interventions in West Asia have proven to be counterproductive and “secular dictators” were better for the world.

While former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul were categorical in rejecting frontrunner Donald Trump’s call for a ban on non-citizen Muslims travelling to the U.S, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Florida Senator Marco Rubio avoided a direct response on the question. Mr. Cruz even obliquely supported the proposal, pointing out that he had a similar proposal earlier, though “narrowly focused”, only on Muslims from trouble spots.

Mr. Trump reiterated his proposal that has outraged a wide section of world opinion but found support among a substantial Republican segment and a section of the media. Mr. Trump claimed credit for attracting national attention on an issue that he said was being overlooked – Islamic radicalism.

Mr. Bush, who defended his brother and former president George W. Bush’s West Asia policy, which included coalitions with friendly Arabs, said: “If we push the Muslim world away, we can’t win this war.”

In a largely scattered debate that did not bring the spotlight on any particular candidate, the more engaging and intense exchanges took place between Mr. Bush and Mr. Trump, and between Mr. Cruz and Mr. Rubio.

Mr. Bush termed Mr. Trump a “chaos candidate”, who would make a “chaos president,” and Mr. Trump returned the favour by questioning Mr. Bush’s energy levels and declaring, “under him America would never be great again.”

Mr. Cruz and Mr. Rubio locked horns several times over issues of immigration and national security.

All candidates barring Mr. Paul favoured more power to state agencies for surveillance and metadata collection. Mr. Cruz had a tough time defending his support for curtailing surveillance, while Ohio Governor John Kasich pointed out that the State’s inability to intercept encrypted communication has become a major hindrance in anti-terrorism efforts.

“The technological capability of the state is woefully inadequate. The answer is to rope in the private sector,” said Carly Fiorina, a former head of Hewlett Packard and the only woman in the race.

Mr. Paul and Mr. Trump were convinced that West Asia was better under dictators.

“We should have used the money that we spent on toppling dictators for domestic infrastructure,” said Mr. Trump.

On the question of military strategy against IS, most candidates appeared supporting U.S ground intervention, though nobody articulated it in as many words.